From slave to the first woman to occupy the Egyptian throne since Cleopatra, Shajar al-Durr, also written as Shajarat, remains one of Egypt’s most popular historical figures. Yet so much of her life is unknown and her place in history overlooked, especially in accounts written by western chroniclers. To medieval Muslim chroniclers Shajar is considered to be “…a woman of outstanding talent” who was able to successfully negotiate an end to the Seventh Crusade and an integral figure in the formation of the Mamluks dynasty. This article hopes to redress the balance and share the story of this remarkable woman with new audiences.
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There is little to nothing known about Shajar’s early life as she did not appear in manuscripts until 1239 and there was little interest in recording the early details of a slave girl’s life. It is believed she was born around 1220 and was either of Turkish or Armenia descent. Even her original name has been lost, Shajar al-Durr, the name she is best known by means ‘Tree of Pearls’ and was said to be inspired by her beauty and her fondness for pearls. Nothing is known of her parents, and whilst there are a small number of sources which suggest she was of a descendant of royal Arabs, most historians agree that her family was likely Kipchak Turks, known in western medieval chronicles as ‘the blonde ones’. Within the Kipchaks women were often held in high status as recorded by the fourteenth century traveller Ibn Battuta who wrote, “I have witnessed in this country a remarkable thing, namely the respect in which women are held…” perhaps this early influence explains her rise to power.
We know Shajar was beautiful not just from her name but because around 1234, she was selected to join the harem of as-Salih Ayyub, the son of al-Kamil the Sultan of Egypt. At the same time he was exiled to Damascus by his father for plotting to overthrow him and take the throne for himself. His uncle, as-Salih Ismail the ruler of Damascus also expelled as-Salih, who retreated to his personal holdings in what is now southern Turkey, where he and Shajar remained until his father’s death in 1238. Upon hearing of his father’s death, as-Salih quickly put plans into action to seize more power than the holdings his father had left him. He wanted Egypt, which was under the rule of his older brother, al-Adil. With the help of local allies he was able to briefly seize Damascus from his uncle, however, he was unable to hold it and as-Salih Ismail took it back in 1239. When as-Salih was captured by an-Nasir Dawud, the former sultan of Damascus, rather than turn as-Salih over to his brother, the two decided to work together. As they prepared to invade Egypt, news reached them that al-Adil’s troops had turned on him and were inviting as-Salih to take the throne.
In June of 1240 he made a “…triumphant entry into Cairo with Shajar at his side”. By this point Shajar had given birth to her only child, a son named Al-Muazzam Turanshah who died in infancy and Shajar and the Sultan were closer than ever. The biographer, historian and poet, Al-Makrisi, wrote that the sultan; “loved her so desperately that he carried her with him into his wars, and never quitted her…” A year after taking the throne as-Salih and Shajar married, and he announced her his favourite wife, thus freeing her from servitude.
Despite securing the Egyptian throne, as-Salih’s rule was not stable. A number of Egyptian nobles were still loyal to his uncle, as-Salih Ismail, and war between uncle and nephew lasted until 1245, when as-Salih conquered Damascus and killed his uncle. Peace was not to last, in November 1249 Western Crusaders landed in Damietta and made their way south towards Cairo. As-Salih and Shajar were in Syria when the crusaders attacked and rushed back to Egypt, however, as-Salih was in ill health. The cause of his illness was likely infected abscess and doctors amputated his leg in a bid to save his life, however, they were unsuccessful and as-Salih died. With the Sultan dead Egypt was vulnerable, so Sharjar and trusted military leaders attempted to make people believe he was still alive. They countered rumours of his death by saying he was alive but unwell and unable to leave his tent. To support this they continued to have food sent to his tent, and had singers and musicians perform. Either through blank orders the Sultan had signed before his death or by forged his signature on them they issued orders. Meanwhile, Shajar arranged for a boat to secretly transport herself and al-Salih’s body to Roda island, where the Mumluk troops were stationed. With her husband’s body hidden, construction began on al-Salih’s mausoleum.
Their deception was successful in keeping the morale of the Egyptian army up and under the control of the Bahri Mamluks they prepared to battle the crusaders. On the 8th of February 1249, they laid a trap for the crusaders by opening the city gates of Al Mansurah to encourage the crusaders to believe they were unprepared. Once the crusader army was inside the city they were ambushed by the Mamluks resulting in a massacre, resulting in upwards of 15,000 soldiers and 400 nobels being killed, and King Louis IX of France and his two brothers being captured. In the face of such a decisive victory Egypt faced no threat from Europe for decades. Writing of the victory, Sir John Glubb wrote of Shajar; “Capable and beautiful, [she] must have been one of very few women in history who commanded an army in a major battle, as she did against Louis IX, King of France.” The victory and the large ransom she agreed for the return of King Louis IX to France, won her the approval of the people.
Following the victory Turanshah, the leader of the Mamluk army via a series of bribes and strategic appointments made a play to make himself Sultan. He may have succeeded, had he not intended to replace the Bahri Mamluks which were of Turkic in origin with the Africans Mamluks. Not willing to be replaced they launched an attack on his palace. In the ensuing attack,Turanshah’s hand was wounded and he was forced to flee and attempt to find safety in a tower on the Nile. His plan failed and the tower was set on fire, forcing Turanshah to once more flee, as he made his escape he was struck in the side with a spear, making it to the river it was said “…he begged for his life and offered to abdicate, but the Mamluks simply answered his words with arrows” before he dispatched by the leader of the Mamluks. With Turanshah’s reign over the Mamluks turned to Shajar and made her the first female leader of Egypt since Cleopatra.
Shajar quickly took control as one chronicler recalled; “decrees were to be issued at her command and … [from] that time she became titular head of the whole state; a royal stamp was issued in her name with the formula ‘mother of Khalil,’ and the khutba [Friday sermon] was pronounced in her name as Sultana of Cairo and all Egypt.” She had the support of her people, and as she had served as her husband’s proxy several times whilst he was on campaign, she was used to issuing orders, as a chronicler writing during Shajar’s lifetime called her “…the most cunning woman of her age.” Despite this, not everyone supported her reign.
Egypt was a Muslim country, and Muslim doctrine did not allow female rulers. As such instead of paying homage to Shajar, the emirs (commanders) in Syria rebelled and put forward the Emir of Aleppo as a new Sultan. Given the support and skill she possessed, Shajar may have survived this but the Caliph of Banda, who was the chief religious authority in the Middle East rejected her mandate. In a message to the noblemen he wrote; “If you are left with no man fit to rule but this woman, then it is our obligation to send you one of ours to take the sultanate.” In the face of such resistance, just eighty days into her rule Shajarat was forced to step down and was replaced by a Mamluk commander named Izz al-Din Aybak.
There are two opposing theories as to what happened next. First, before being made Sultan, Aybak was a successful commander of the army and some suggest he had installed Shajarat as a ‘figurehead’ whilst he ruled from the shadows. However, the second Theory suggests that, seeing she would not be accepted as leader, it was Shajarat who installed Aybak as proxy sultan and continued to rule. What we do know is in July 1250, Aybak became the Sultan of Egypt and he and Shajarat married, possibly before Shajarat stepped down as Sultan. Whether Aybak had any political power or not, he was a skilled military commander responsible for defeating the Syrian army in 1252. During his reign he was forced to suppress rebellions as other Mamluks sought to overthrow him and take power. In addition to putting down rebellions, Aybak and Shajarat were soon at odds. A historical rumour suggests that Shajarat would not consummate their marriage and attempt to prevent him seeing his first wife, Umm Ali, who had given him a son and went as far to suggest he divorced her. Matters between the two came to a bloody end In 1257.
The final straw came when Aybak announced his intention to take a third wife, who was a daughter of a prominent emir. Whilst it was likely a political move, Shajarat saw it as an attempt to replace her. One night whilst Aybak was taking a bath Shajarat and some of her loyal servants murdered him. They claimed he had died of a sudden illness during the night in an attempt to cover their crime. Unfortunately for Shajarat, Umm Ali, (Aybaks first wife) did not believe her and rallied the palace servants against her. There are varying accounts of what happened next, one account suggests Shajarat was held under arrest in the Citadel where she “…ground her beloved pearls to dust, so that no other woman could wear them.” When the 15 year old Al-Mansur Ali succeeded his father as Sultan, he offered Shajar ‘up to the justice of his mother’. According to the 15th century historian Ibn Iyas, Umm Ali had her former rival “…dragged by the feet and thrown from the top”. Another account suggested Shajarat was attacked and beaten to death by the servants using cloves and her body thrown into a moat, “…where it lay naked for three days after her fine clothes were stolen by the poor of the city.” The servants who had helped her were executed.
Eventually, Shajarat’s body was removed from the moat and buried in a tomb she had commissioned for herself near the Mosque of Tulum, which is considered “…a jewel of Islamic funerary architecture.” The interior of her tomb, the mihrab (prayer niche) is decorated with Byzantine glass mosaics, the centerpiece of which is a Tree of Life adorned with pearls, created by artists from Constantinople who were brought in especially to decorate her tomb.
Shajarat is a fascinating character who had a lasting impact on the history of Egypt, so it is sad to find there were so few accounts of her life. It is not unusual for the early lives of women from poor families not to be recorded, but thinking of all the stories and information we lost because of this is frustrating. In the accounts that do exist the details are recorded differently by scholars to fit their narrative, meaning much of the story we do know is conjecture and guess work. Shajar’s life saw her succeed in an arena that historically has belonged solely to men and more people should know her name and story.